Is sprawl a conservative concern?


AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this speech at the Sustainable Dallas conference on May 11, 2002.


I want to congratulate Margie Haley and all the others who have put together this wonderful Sustainable Dallas conference. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today… and for having the vision to make an event like this happen in the first place.

No doubt it occurred to Margie to include me in the lineup because of REP, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection. Margie knows that REP bases its advocacy for conservation and environmental protection on fundamental conservative principles. If we can’t identify a good reason why conservatives should take one position or another, we don’t advocate for that position.


So, what are those traditional conservative principles on which we Republican environmentalists base our arguments?

I like to point out four basic principles, because they seem to make the most sense in regards to environmental issues. Let me talk about them in general terms right now, then I’ll come back and expand a bit on how they relate to the problem of sprawl.

The first conservative principle is that society is intergenerational. We aren’t in this world all by ourselves. We owe it to our contemporaries and to the many generations that will follow us to do the best we can for our country and our world in the time that we are given on earth. We who were born in the twentieth century received a priceless inheritance from our forefathers… a land rich in natural resources and scenic beauty. We owe it to our descendants to pass that bounty on in at least as good a condition as we received it… and if possible, even better.

The second conservative principle is that individual freedom is bound at the hip with responsibility. Even in a free society, we can’t exercise unbridled freedom. We must see ourselves as part of a community, and we have to accept limits that society imposes for the benefit of the community. One would hope that people would voluntarily do what is good for the whole of society, but that can’t be assumed… which is why we have laws to define what we may and may not do. Only the most die-hard libertarian objects to laws passed for the benefit of the whole. Likewise, only the most die-hard anti-environmentalist would object to the “polluter pays” principle or insist that the government pay him or her for obeying the laws that protect our natural heritage.

The third conservative principle is the old-fashioned (but still very relevant) notion of prudence. Our clean air and water, our wildlife, our wetlands, woodlands, rivers, estuaries, and the like—all rolled together— make up this nation’s natural capital, the source of our strength and prosperity. Future generations will depend on those resources as much as we do, so it’s only prudent to protect them, improve them if need be, and pass them on in abundance, and in good shape. It’s not prudent to squander resources of any sort—be they human, financial or natural. Prudence mandates that we safeguard our air, water and other natural resources for future needs.

The fourth conservative principle is piety toward nature… because man is not the lord of creation. He is but a part of it. And the more religious a man is… the more fervently he believes in the Creator… the more humbly he must approach the other works of the Creator.As conservative writer Richard Weaver wrote in 1948:

“Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whims. To some extent, of course, it has to be used. But what man should seek in regard to nature is not a complete dominion but a manner of living together, a coming to terms with something that was here before our time and will be here after it.”

The great thing is, this four-point approach tends to work. We don’t have to look too hard to find good conservative reasons for protecting endangered species, for example; or to explain why wetlands and wild forests should be left as nature designed them. And so, in that vein, I’m here to talk about sprawl… from a conservative point of view.

I hope that by the time I’m finished this afternoon, you’ll agree that sprawl is something that conservatives should be concerned about. I want to make sure that from now on, whenever you hear somebody talk about this country’s urgent need to rein in sprawl, never again will you think that person is some kind of “wild-eyed liberal enviro-wacko.” I want to help you see that people who consider themselves conservatives should fight sprawl whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head… because sprawl is harming our country.


Let’s look at the problem of sprawl through the lens of those four conservative principles I mentioned a minute ago.

1. Society is intergenerational.

We must consider how our grandchildren will fare if we leave behind a nation traffic-clogged from coast to coast, its cities and older suburbs left to their dismal fate like so much litter along the road to the newest suburban meccas. We’ve already created sprawl-opolises like Boswash (Boston to Washington) and Chiwaukee (Chicago to Milwaukee). How many more sprawl-opolises will exist by the time our grandchildren have children, if we don’t start reining in sprawl now? Do we really want to leave them a world that offers virtually no choice but to live in an urbanized environment?

2. Individual freedom is bound at the hip with responsibility.

A builder can’t just build whatever he wants and say to hell with everyone else. Likewise, a city can’t just grow and spread and sprawl without considering the impact of all that growth on the people affected. The elderly, for example, often suffer when an established community is overrun by sprawl. I know retired people who were priced out of the homes they paid off decades ago, after their property taxes skyrocketed. And why did those taxes skyrocket? Sewers. Water mains. Roads. Schools. Libraries. Park districts. Fire and police departments. All the infrastructure that must be added or upgraded when a quiet little town is swept up into red-hot suburbia.

3. Prudence tells us to safeguard the natural wetlands that protect our watersheds and keep our communities from flooding.

Natural wetlands are often the first things to go when sprawl hits a community, and those grass-covered “bathtubs” that developers incorporate into their subdivision plans are no substitute for the real thing.

Prudence tells us not to build homes along our flood-prone rivers and streams, or on hurricane-prone barrier islands, or on mudslide-prone coastal ravines. And yet we have such a fondness for such spots that we often throw caution to the winds and build in the worst possible places. And why should we bother to exercise prudence at all… when insurance or FEMA will subsidize rebuilding houses lost to imprudence?

4. Piety towards nature encourages us to respect the works of the Creator.

In too many cases, majestic trees are bulldozed for shopping centers, and critical wildlife habitat is destroyed for subdivisions. It’s often cheaper to raze a tree, clear a forest or fill a wetland than to save it, and too many government and business leaders show a greater appreciation for the corporate bottom line than for God’s natural creations.

Fortunately, ordinary voters are often more savvy and spiritual. Across the country, bond referenda to enable local governments to acquire open space for wildlife habitat and human recreational trails tend to pass overwhelmingly. In my own Lake County, Illinois, over the past 9 years, a huge majority of voters have approved three separate bond referenda for open space acquisition and restoration… for a total of $160,000,000. That’s taxpayers raising their own taxes to preserve open space… just in one county… in one overwhelmingly Republican county!


I realize that you may all be thinking… well, those conservative values are nice, and all that, but concepts like prudence and piety are just a bit too soft and squishy to be taken seriously in today’s bottom-line world.

So, rather than depend on those values alone to make my point…


I ground my argument that sprawl is a conservative issue on two factual contentions, each based on decades of history and social trends.

First, that sprawl is a creation of government— mostly the federal government—not the free market at work, as many seem to believe.

Second, that sprawl is undermining our families, our communities and the very character of our country.

Now, let’s analyze both of those and see if they hold water.


#1. Sprawl is a creation of government. It’s not the free market at work, as many seem to believe.

Before explaining why sprawl is a creation of the federal government… not the free market at work, I want to acknowledge the research of two of my REP colleagues who have worked extensively on sprawl-related issues.

State Representative David Steil has earned a reputation as a sprawl-fighter in the Pennsylvania legislature. (Read his article here.)

And Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta who has written extensively on the problem of sprawl. In fact, REP plans to publish a two-part article on sprawl by Mike Lewyn in the summer and fall issues of our Green Elephant newsletter. Some of the facts and quotes that I shall cite here come from that wonderful article. (PART I, PART II)

We can trace the origens of sprawl back as far as the 1920s: to federal government intervention in highway, zoning and education policies.

Let’s start off by talking about highways.

Federal highway construction projects were the first agents of deliberate urban destruction in our history. For decades, massive federally-funded road projects plowed through established neighborhoods in virtually every city in the country. Those new cross-through highways destroyed untold numbers of small businesses, uprooted families by the thousands, and ultimately led to a loss of affordable housing—while at the same time providing a convenient escape route for those who could afford to move to the suburbs. The result over time was a double-whammy for our cities: urban poverty and blight accompanied by middle-class flight to the increasingly-attractive suburbs.

To those who argue that people would opt to live in the suburbs even without highway access, Mike Lewyn retorts: “To accept this argument, you have to believe that every single person who moves to some suburb near a major highway would still live there if his or her commute was going to be on two-lane gravel roads all the way to downtown—obviously an absurd premise.”

Mike likes to point to a 1999 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, which asked what amenities would make people willing to move from one area to another. The top response, from 55% of those participating in the survey, was “highway access.” So, as Mike says, “If highway access makes a suburb more popular, obviously building highways to the countryside makes the countryside more popular and more developed.” And as he points out, even groups that benefit from the spread of sprawl—like the home builders—are beginning to admit that highways create sprawl.

Clearly, highways are not the result of market forces at work. They are centrally planned and heavily subsidized by taxpayers, whose money has been used to drain the lifeblood from many of our older cities. During the first half of the 20th century, American cities mostly gained population. In the second half of the century, when highway construction was at its zenith, many cities lost population. St. Louis lost over 60% of its 1950 population, while Buffalo and Cleveland lost almost half of theirs.

It’s not just the federal government that builds too many highways, of course. States and cities are addicted to road-building too. And very often, it’s not market forces that drive the new roads but deliberately pushing the envelope on growth and development for its own sake. In other words… deliberate, planned sprawl.

To illustrate this point, and with all due respect to the great state of Texas, I feel compelled to point to your sister city of Houston. There is no place that I have ever visited that appears to plan its sprawl so far in advance as Houston. Whenever I’m there, I’m amazed — and dismayed — at Houston’s relentless series of concentric-ring highways. They seem deliberately calculated to spread urban sprawl as far and wide into the surrounding farm- and ranchland… and to scoop up as many rural towns along the way… as humanly possible.

I just happened to be in Houston a couple of years ago, the day after they opened the latest outer-loop highway that wraps around the others. It was the subject of much hoop-de-do in the local media. So I, with a rented car and half a day to kill — more out of curiosity than anything — I drove out to see where that brand-new super-tollway would lead me.

And as I drove along I saw… virtually nothing that required such a highway! Beautiful rolling countryside open on both sides. A few farms and small towns. Trees growing as they had for the last century. Land already festooned with huge signs visible from the road: “For Sale— Commercial!” And I have to tell you, I felt a genuine sense of mourning. It wasn’t even a landscape that I had any personal connection to, but it was lovely… and very threatened. I’d be willing to bet that by now it is already well on its way to looking just the same as all the other monotonous strips of offices and hotels and big-box retailers and restaurants and parking lots and subdivisions that have filled in the previously-open spaces along those earlier ring-roads that Houston built over the past decades.

I will be curious to see how long they can keep it up without draining the lifeblood out of downtown Houston and its older neighborhoods, as has happened in so many other American cities. It’s a pretty safe bet that sooner or later what happened to Buffalo, Cleveland and St. Louis will happen to Houston as well.

I’m sure that Houston’s planners and elected officials consider themselves “conservatives,” but I see nothing conservative in planning the destruction of our cities, our older urban neighborhoods, our countryside and our rural communities.

Now consider the history of federal intervention in mortgage and zoning policies, which also began in the 1920s and ‘30s.

As far back as the ‘20s, the federal government began encouraging towns and cities to develop auto-dependent new communities… forerunners of the suburbs of today. The catalyst of this process was the Standard Zoning Enabling Act, which described types of zoning districts and mandated the uniform building types, purposes, and lot sizes that could be built within each type of district. Starting with the New Deal in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage-insurance program gave clear preference to buyers of homes in low-density areas. In Mike Lewyn’s pithy analysis, the FHA effectively “bribed” homeowners to move to the suburbs.

Before the Standard Zoning Enabling Act was passed, America’s towns and cities were characterized by pedestrian-friendly mixed uses—homes over stores; homes within walking distance of libraries, churches, parks, schools and offices; homes of varying sizes and types combined into real neighborhoods. People lived and worked in close proximity to others with different education, income, job skills, ambitions, and cultural backgrounds. Rich and poor, factory owner and factory worker, professionals and laborers shared the same sidewalks, parks and stores. Their children played together as a matter of course. Such towns and cities were real communities, each with its own unique character and charm. It’s that kind of charm and community spirit that Americans have a nostalgia for today… to such an extent that many “bedroom communities” are retrofitting themselves with “downtowns” in an attempt to bring some of the old ways back. But very few people seem to realize how we lost that charm and community spirit to begin with.

Once the policies of the Standard Zoning Enabling Act began to take root in “planned communities” across America, all homes had to be built on lots the same size as their neighbors. Stores, offices and rental apartments were banished from single-family communities. Variety in appearance and price began to disappear, and with it went the variety of the people who lived in those communities. Homogenization became the norm… and as a result we now suffer from a surfeit of cookie-cutter homes on cookie-cutter lots on cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs in cookie-cutter subdivisions that always seem to be named for the very thing that was destroyed to build the subdivision: Woodland Estates. Rolling Hills Farm. Grand Marsh Villas. Ancient Tree. You can name them as well as I can, and we all know what such subdivisions contain: lookalike houses filled with families of similar incomes, similar lifestyles, similar ethnic backgrounds. Gone is the variety that once provided the proverbial spice of life to American communities.

Now let’s look at education policy.

As Mike Lewyn has documented, both state and federal education policies forced middle-class families out of the inner-city neighborhoods where they used to live and herded them in droves out to the suburbs.

The states did it by insisting that school assignments be made on the basis of residence. This policy has probably done more to contribute to sprawl by undermining our cities than anything else. The more low-income students there are attending a given inner-city school, the more the middle-income students—and their parents—want out. But under common state policies, the only way they are allowed to get out is to enroll in an expensive private school or move… usually to the suburbs.

The only publicly-funded exception to this enforced “neighborhood school” concept has been the “magnet school” concept… and that might have proven to be the silver bullet had there been enough such schools for all who wanted to attend them. But there never have been enough magnet schools, and competition to get into them can be as cutthroat as getting into a top college.

Soon after the midpoint of the twentieth century, the federal government stepped into the educational fray with an ambitious social engineering scheme called integration. Nor please don’t get me wrong. Integration was a concept whose time had come. That policy accomplished most of the goals its creators had in mind, and it changed American society for the better. However, like many other social experiments, it ended up obeying the Law of Unintended Consequences.

During the era of forced integration, federal courts decided that urban schools had to be racially integrated, but suburban schools did not. So, if you were a middle-class urban white family looking to escape the heavy hand of government, what would you do? Yup. You’d move to the suburbs and send your kid to one of those brand-new lily-white schools that were springing up by the thousands in brand-new bedroom communities on the outer fringe of suburbia. And that’s exactly what millions of American families did over a couple of decades.

In so many ways — highways, zoning, mortgage, insurance, education — governments have encouraged people to give up the tradition of living, working, shopping and going to school in close-knit, pedestrian-friendly, low-property-tax neighborhoods. It was government that encouraged people to swap that lifestyle for the two-car, two-income, latch-key-kid, homogeneous, planned-unit-development, cul-de-sac lifestyle… mostly because government judges’ and bureaucrats’ decisions made that kind of suburban lifestyle more desirable than its urban alternative.

Add up all the big-government policies that came along during the 20th century and you’ll see that there really weren’t many free-market processes driving Americans to the suburbs. Government mandates have done more to create sprawl than any market incentive, and we conservatives should be upset about that.


#2. Sprawl is undermining our families, our communities and the very character of our country.

Yes, I know that’s a strong statement, but I do believe it’s true. Sprawl has been slowly, quietly and mercilessly undermining our families, our communities and the very character of our country.

Let’s think again about those millions of American families who took the federal bait after World War II… riding those federally-built highways into what we in Illinois might call the “Cornfield Suburbs.”

Once out in the ‘burbs, those families bought houses with federally-subsidized mortgages and insurance—including federal flood insurance that allowed many to live in areas that repeatedly flooded without personal financial risk. When the floods came — as they increasingly did with the hundreds of thousands of acres of impervious surfaces that were being laid down — it didn’t matter. Uncle Sam would pay the people back, and they could go on living there until the next flood, and the next payback from the government, and so on. Personal responsibility for unwise choices went by the wayside. Government would always make it right.

During all those decades of building, paving and flooding, those families were sending their kids to those monochrome suburban schools… which were good and safe and got them into the colleges of their choice, but came at a huge price in property taxes. And it wasn’t just the families with school-age kids who paid the price for those expensive schools, but also senior citizens, low-income workers and everyone else in those small towns that happened to be in the way of the urban steamroller.

The increasing cost of suburban life meant that mothers often had little choice but to work to help pay the mortgage, the property tax and the car note. But never mind, because those federal highways made it easy for mothers and fathers alike to work far from home, leaving latchkey kids to let themselves in after school… or not. Without a parent waiting at home when they got there, kids found other places to go—like the mega-malls that became a substitute for the non-existent downtown. And they found other things to do. Hamburger-flipping. Shopping. Drugs. Sex. Whatever.

Eventually, even homes in those older suburbs began to lose their value, as successive waves of families pushed farther and farther out from the original city. Young families found cheaper housing in newer, more remote Cornfield Suburbs, adding even more time to the commute and continuing the vicious cycle of new highways, housing developments and schools; higher taxes, longer commutes, working moms, latchkey kids, and so on.

In Chicago, the city I know best, many of the inner ring of suburbs have deteriorated sharply as their residents followed the highways, the schools and the corporate jobs out to the newest ‘burbs on the outer fringe. So not only are many parts of the city suffering from poverty and blight, but many of the once-thriving suburbs are going down that road as well. It appears that we have become such a throw-away society that we even find it acceptable to abandon our older suburbs.

As Mike Lewyn describes this phenomenon:

“Sprawl devours its own children. Sprawl creates inner ring suburbs, only to destroy them a few decades later by creating outer suburbs to skim off their elites. As long as cities and suburbs continue to lose their most affluent citizens to newer suburbs, no community is truly safe from the ravages of neighborhood decay, and no stable community can long endure.”

What a given community becomes, of course, depends greatly on decisions made by its local government, business and civic leaders. Things aren’t all dictated from Washington and the state capitals. Wise local decisions can ensure that a community remains livable, even in the onslaught of sprawl. Unwise decisions can literally ruin a community.

For the last ten years, I have been a county commissioner in the suburban Chicago area… a part of the country that you may not think has much in common with Dallas. I believe it does, however, and I would like to use Lake County, Illinois, to illustrate a few of the points I have just made. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if there are, in fact, any parallels with the Dallas metropolitan area.

Lake County lies just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line, and just north of Cook County… known as the place where the dead vote — sometimes several times each election day — and for the beautiful City of Chicago. One hundred years ago, it was a day-long horse-and-buggy trip from Lake County to either Chicago or Milwaukee. Farm folk in Lake County easily lived out their lives without ever setting foot in either city. Nowadays, we hop into our cars and spend from half an hour to two hours to get to one or the other, based on the prevailing traffic conditions.

Lake County is home to a number of towns that grew up spontaneously in the 19th century. It has its bedroom communities, too, but I want to tell you about three specific towns.

These towns all have the traditional Main Street of street-level shops, churches, schools, libraries, parks and Victorian homes. Early residents lived in close proximity to their place of work, often living over the store, but never more than a few blocks—and a short walk—away from home. Some of the town names are evocative of that era, like Libertyville, which sprang up like an island in a sea of agriculture. Others reflect the settlers who first discovered the area’s natural amenities, like a certain Mr. Gray, who settled alongside a fish- and bird-filled lake and founded a town now known as Grayslake. Other town names reflect their Native American roots, like Waukegan, which went on to gain fame as the birthplace of Jack Benny. Each of these 19th century towns is a modern community today, but each has evolved in its own way and developed its own character—and its own set of problems—based primarily on its approach to sprawl.

Libertyville has maintained a vibrant downtown — with nearby homes on small lots and grid streets, neighborhood restaurants, bike paths and public transportation options. It has controlled its growth for the most part, developed a walkable community of established neighborhoods, and created the only Township Open Space District in the State of Illinois. Kids bike to school, to the downtown movie theater and to their friends’ houses. Property values are high, because people really want to live in Libertyville. Property taxes are high, too, because they’re paying for schools that are exceptionally good. But even so, taxes tend to be stable… not spiking up wildly from one year to the next. Pro-development and pro-open space advocates battle continuously for political control of Libertyville, but the end result is a dynamic community with a clear vision of itself and its future. It’s the envy of many others in Lake County.

Grayslake, which started out as the same kind of rural village, took a different route under rabidly pro-development leadership, and the result is dozens of sprawling subdivisions and strip malls completely disconnected from one another and from the downtown area. Thousands of residents who live on cul-de-sacs are forced to take their cars everywhere, because the only place their subdivision streets lead to are highways. Grayslake’s downtown still has an old feed store, which sells mostly pet food now, and odds and ends of little shops, plus a handful of Painted Ladies from the turn of the previous century. But it’s a car-drive away from most of its residents, who seem to prefer hanging out in the regional mega-mall. Not surprisingly, downtown Grayslake isn’t much of a lure for anybody. People identify more with their subdivision than they do with the larger community called “Grayslake.” And the worst thing is the taxes, which spike up every year to pay for the endless construction of new schools, roads, sewers and water mains required by those new housing developments. Senior citizens in older parts of Grayslake live in fear of being taxed out of their homes. Some have decided to move, only to find that their homes are hard to sell, because they don’t have the curb appeal of those thousands of new subdivision homes.

And then there’s Waukegan, which occupies premium real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan. Once a thriving city — the largest between Chicago and Milwaukee — it has seen its downtown disintegrate, its crime rate skyrocket, its property values plummet, and its quality of life become a county joke. For decades, in the name of economic development, city fathers looked the other way as corporations dumped PCBs and other toxins into the lake… until the Clean Water Act put a stop to their worst practices. Waukegan Harbor has now been cleaned up, thanks to Superfund, but Jack Benny’s hometown still contains another Superfund site that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. White flight started decades ago and has not been reversed. Federally-funded highways only made that easier. Several years ago, Waukegan’s representatives on our County Board were among the most aggressive in advocating for the construction of a new regional mega-mall called Gurnee Mills. Maybe they thought it would help poor, long-suffering Waukegan, but Gurnee Mills sucked the juice out of what was Waukegan’s only viable shopping center. Now that mall is a wasteland, too, like chunks of downtown Waukegan.

What happened to once-healthy towns like Grayslake and Waukegan—and so many others like them across the country? What made Grayslake and Waukegan go downhill, while Libertyville continued to thrive? Was it all just a matter of wise or poor community choices, or were there larger forces at work?

I would argue that it was, in fact, those larger social forces at work. Some of the things they’ve brought to modern life have been good, but many are not. Clearly, it is up to the local community to deal with those forces in such a way that ensures it will survive and thrive in spite of them. And, I would argue, it’s up to us conservatives — who say we care about family life and communities — to insist that government stop doing the things that are having such a negative impact on our country.


In closing… I hope I have convinced you that sprawl is not the result of market forces, but of poorly thought-out federal and state policies piled one on top of another for decades throughout the twentieth century.

I hope you agree with me that the same policies that led to a sprawl-prone society also resulted in the often-dysfunctional society we know today. Both are reasons for conservatives to be concerned about sprawl and to want to rein it in before it does further damage to the social fabric of our society. Reining in sprawl won’t be easy, but as they say… nothing worth doing ever is.

I believe that ending sprawl is worth the doing. It would be a sign of how mature our society has become if we could say, “Enough already!”… and really mean it.